The Cleveland Indians fell short of their ultimate goal, but the pieces are in place for another postseason run.
It may be of little consolation for fans of the Cleveland Indians the day after losing a dramatic Game Seven of the World Series, but the 2016 Tribe defied the odds, defied the experts, and defied a good deal of conventional baseball wisdom to come so close to winning a championship.
History suggests that the story for the franchise may be far from over, too. Just look at the now-World Champion Chicago Cubs, who last year got their first real taste of postseason play, only to be swept in the National League Championship Series by the New York Mets. Or the Kansas City Royals, who lost the 2014 World Series in similarly heartbreaking fashion only to bounce back last season and win it all.
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Major League Baseball is such that present success can never be guaranteed to continue in the future, but in looking at the way this Cleveland ballclub is put together, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that the Indians can parlay this year’s run into something truly special in 2017.
The foundation for the team is strong. The core group of players are all locked up for next season and, in most cases, beyond. The front office will have a few decisions to make, of course, and it’s impossible to predict how the offseason will play out, but on paper, Cleveland will have to be considered among the handful of favorites in the American League next season.
Around the infield, the core is under contract as follows:
- Jason Kipnis: signed through 2019, team option for 2020
- Francisco Lindor: eligible for arbitration in 2019
- Jose Ramirez: eligible for arbitration in 2019
Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff will in all likelihood try to sign Lindor and Ramirez to extensions at some point, be it this offseason or next, but both players and Kipnis form the base for the infield to be built around for the next several seasons.
Carlos Santana has a team option for 2017 that will be picked up without a doubt, and could also be a candidate for an extension this offseason.
The Indians will have to decide upon how best to proceed with first baseman Mike Napoli, who is a free agent. They could extend a qualifying offer, though that seems unlikely, or just try to re-sign him. Napoli’s career-highs in home runs and runs batted in in 2016 means he’ll command more than the one-year, $7 million plus incentives that he received this year, but his late season swoon (.140/.289 /.323 after September 1st, .173/.232/ .288 in the playoffs) may impact his market.
The picture in the outfield is slightly more muddled:
- Michael Brantley: signed through 2017, team option for 2018
- Lonnie Chisenhall: eligible for arbitration in 2017
- Brandon Guyer: eligible for arbitration in 2017
Chisenhall cannot be a free agent until after the 2018 season, and could be a candidate for an extension. Guyer proved to be an effective platoon option, and paired with Chisenhall adds up to one solid major league player.
Tyler Naquin now has just one year of big league service, and so is years away from arbitration and free agency, and has a muddy future with prospects like Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen performing well in the upper levels of the minor leagues.
And of course, Brantley’s return after appearing in a mere 11 games in 2016 would be seen as the equivalent of a free agent signing by Cleveland’s brass. If healthy and performing as he did in 2014 and 2015, Brantley, who won’t turn 30 until next May, would provide a huge lift to the lineup.
The one question will be Rajai Davis, who is a free agent after playing on a one-year, $5.25 million contract. Davis led the AL in stolen bases at the age of 35, but like Napoli, saw his production fade in the second half of the season. That said, he provided one of the most iconic moments in franchise history with his Game Seven-tying home run off Aroldis Chapman, and played solid if not spectacular defense.
Behind the plate, the Indians are also in good shape:
- Yan Gomes: signed through 2019, team options for 2020 and 2021
- Roberto Perez: eligible for arbitration in 2018
Gomes had a historically bad year at the plate when healthy in 2016, and missed a large chunk of time with a dislocated shoulder and broken hand. That he was even on the postseason roster for the Tribe was in itself something of a miracle. Whether he keeps the starting job in 2017 will be one of the questions that will need answered in spring training.
That question only exists because of Perez, who in Gomes’ absence played exceptional defense. The 27-year old threw out 50 percent of would-be base stealers and became one of the elite pitch framers in the game. His bat also came alive in the postseason, with three home runs and seven RBIs.
So there are some holes that will need to be filled and questions to be answered among the everyday players for the Indians. But, the most important reason to believe the club can contend next season and beyond is the pitching staff, which has proven that, if healthy, can be among the strongest in all of MLB.
Here’s how the starting rotation and key relievers are set up:
- Corey Kluber: signed through 2019, team options for 2020 and 2021
- Carlos Carrasco: signed through 2018, team options for 2019 and 2020
- Danny Salazar: eligible for arbitration in 2017
- Trevor Bauer: eligible for arbitration in 2018
- Josh Tomlin: signed through 2017, team option for 2018
- Cody Allen: eligible for arbitration in 2017
- Bryan Shaw: eligible for arbitration in 2017
- Dan Otero: eligible for arbitration in 2017
- Andrew Miller: signed through 2018
Cleveland’s pitching is locked up for the 2017 season and, in most cases, beyond. There are several candidates for extensions, including Allen, Salazar, and Shaw, though the usage for Shaw the past four years may be a red flag for the front office.
Regardless, the Indians starting rotation should look remarkably similar next year, barring any unforeseen injuries or trades, which will keep their playoff chances high. Think of what the club accomplished in the 2016 postseason without Carrasco and Salazar, and the Tribe appears to be built for October baseball.
Younger arms such as Zach McAllister, ALCS hero Ryan Merritt, Kyle Crockett, Adam Plutko, Cody Anderson, and others are all under team control for years to come as well. And as Otero proved this year (and Jeff Manship in 2015, Scott Acheson in 2014) relievers can come out of nowhere to make substantial contributions. There’s no telling who could be next.
Perhaps just as important as the core of the team being locked up for the future is that manager Terry Francona is also under contract through 2018, with team options for 2019 and 2020. As Tito has displayed throughout his tenure in Cleveland, and particularly in the 2016 postseason, there are few skippers in the game on his level. The Indians are in good hands as long as he is at the helm.
So the heartbreak of coming so close to a championship but falling short will be with Cleveland’s organization and its fans for a while. But perhaps the sting is muted, if ever so slightly, with the knowledge that the club is built to compete for several years to come. We can’t predict the future, but from where the Indians are standing, it looks pretty bright.